Thailand is still a deeply religious country, and there are few places in the world where Buddhism is so thoroughly ingrained into the fabric of everyday life as in the Land of Smiles. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years in Thailand, and it’s becoming more popular among people from all over the world. And when you visit this beautiful meditation retreat in northern Thailand you will meet not only Thai people, but people from many countries over the world.
We found this place by accident when we were cruising along highway 1095 with out motorscooters. On the left side of the road there was a sign that announced “Tamwua Forest Monastery Welcomes You To Practice Meditation Vipassana”. You could tell it was written by a Thai person.
We stopped our motorscooters, looked at each other and turned around to follow the small path which meandered through the beautiful landscape.
Our scooters slowed down almost by themselves – the atmosphere was of such a nature that we felt it was appropriate to approach in a slow, unhurried manner, and driving down the little trail was like a small meditative experience in itself already.
After a couple of minutes we reached the forest monastery’s gate, parked our motorcycles and a young Buddhist monk in the typical orange robes greeted us with a warm smile.
He didn’t seem particularly eager to get us in, but when we inquired what the procedure was and how things worked around here, he answered in a very cheerful manner, almost as if our questions would amuse him.
“If we want to practice meditation here, when can we start?”
“That’s up to you, not to us.” the monk replied with a funny laughter.
“What do we need to meditate here?”
“I don’t know also what you need, but I think you have it already.” and he seemed amused by his own answer.
“How long can we stay here?”
This time he laughed before saying: “Up to you, up to you.”
“Well, what do you request if we practice meditation here?”
“You must practice meditation if you stay here.”
“How do we practice meditation here?”
“Try it, then you know.”
His answers were a bit quizzical but also intriguing, and the overall atmosphere of the place seemed very peaceful, grounded and calming.
The monastery had a very down to earth feel, even though some rather spaced out characters walked around there.
Some of the people here had a really great energy and just radiated a very calm positivity, others seemed very quiet and self-encapsulated, some where quiet chatty, and there was one guy who was in really urgent need of a shower but didn’t seem to think so himself.
People from many different countries were here, and I’d say about half of them were international visitors and half of them Thai people from different parts of the country.
All of them were dressed in white, walking around the meticulously well-kept grounds of the monastery nestled between the mountain ridges.
At one point I thought it kind of resembled a sect, at least on an outer layer – all these people basically dresses the same way, doing different kinds of chores to maintain the place.
But there’s no of the intense psychology going on that is employed in sectarian cults, and in fact if anything, people might feel that they’re “left alone” too much.
The monks are very nonchalant about teaching, and they don’t talk in much detail about how to practice “the right way”. Instead, they just tell you to practice and offer you some basic guidance for the three daily group meditations.
My favorite part was the walking meditation. I think one reason is that you don’t have to sit completely still – your body is moving, and I always feel that I (and I think this is true for most people) already spend enough time sitting (almost) still. We have so sedentary lifestyles these days, spending much of our time in front of screens, displays or books, while our bodies are really made for movement.
But the movement of the walking meditation is a very conscious movement, very slow. You are aware with every step, and moving in this manner in a group almost puts your mind into a meditative state by itself. Still, I also found it very challenging to keep my mind calm – for some reason, there was so much to take in that I noticed my mind wandered much more when doing the walking meditation than it did during sitting or “sleeping” (laying down, not really sleeping) meditation.
Before I arrived at the temple, I thought that the first day would be the most difficult, and it would get easier with each successive day. But it was exactly the other way around. The first day was the easiest, and it got more challenging with each day. I guess at first the novelty of it all is enough to keep you at it, and the more often you’ve already gone through the routine, the more tempting it seems for your mind to wander. Or at least it was that way with me and my mind 🙂
The least popular aspect of staying at the forest monastery for many people was getting up at 5 a.m. in the morning. But I actually liked that, even though it was surprisingly cold at that time of the day. Not the temperature you typically expect of “tropical Thailand”, but in February in the mountains of northern Thailand you’re not on a southern island beach. But there’s a special beauty in those hours when the mountain peaks are disappearing into the fog and a new day is coming to life to the songs of the birds.
If you want you can join the “breakfast crew”. That mostly means cutting vegetables and fruits or doing other kitchen chores. We did that and were rewarded with – you won’t believe this – Nutella toast! Never before has Nutella tasted so good! That’s one of the nice things about Thailand – they have a very laid back and playful attitude about things, and really, life can be serious enough already. One of the things I didn’t appreciate about meditation communities in Germany (where I come from) is that stern seriousness that some people engage in, it just feels so dry and depleted of “the juice of life” and a certain joyfulness that is omnipresent in Thailand, even (or maybe especially) among Buddhist monks who have dedicated many years of their lives to practicing Vipassana meditation.
At seven a.m. everyone is at the sala (the main hall) and offers food to the monks, and afterwards everyone else gets to enjoy their breakfast.
After breakfast you wash your breakfast utensils and go to the group meditation at the sala. Afterwards you have free time at your own disposal, and you can just talk with other people, or explore the grounds of the monastery, or take a nap (erm, I mean: practice laying meditation).
Then at 10:30 a.m. you offer lunch to the monks again, and afterwards you get to eat your lunch, which also happens to be the last meal of the day. Yes, there’s no dinner at the retreat.
Afterwards you again have free time at your disposal until 1 p.m. when there is another group meditation, followed by more free time.
And then at 4 p.m. you do some chores like sweeping the grounds, collecting leaves, doing laundry, etc.
Afterwards you again have some time to relax until 6 p.m. when you meet at the Dhamma Hall. There you will chant in Pali. If you don’t know what Pali is, don’t worry. It’s a derivate language of Sanskrit and the earliest Buddhist scriptures were written in Pali. If you’re wondering how you can chant in Pali if you don’t even know what it is, let alone how to speak it don’t worry: you get a kind of “karaoke Pali” version, and you just chant the sounds that are written out in your chanting book.
This might seem strange or silly – after all, why chant something that is essentially “empty of meaning” (at least to you), but it’s a surprisingly interesting and in some ways stimulating experience.
Followed by a final group meditation of the day, and then you have time for yourself. However, since there aren’t many lights and the monastery is surrounded by mountain ridges, your body attunes itself to nature’s rhythm and you start to notice by how much artificial light we are usually surrounded – and what happens when these lights are gone. Most people are asleep by 10 p.m. at the retreat, and that’s one of the reasons why getting up at 5 a.m. is easier.
Oh, how about sleeping quarters? Well, there are several kutis, which are basically little houses where you can sleep (or meditation). It’s very basic, there are no beds, just simple mats which you put on the floor to sleep on.
Staying at this meditation retreat in northern Thailand was a great experience, and it changed my outlook on life in some subtle ways. We all carry around our little bag of issues and by “cleansing” our minds through meditation we are free to approach these issues in new ways. It helps to develop your sense of intuition – maybe that has to do with not being “stuck” in one way of seeing things.
It can also help you to see things more for what they are, rather than what you think they are (or should be).
I won’t say it’s always fun, because sometimes you’ll feel like you want to do something else, sometimes it feels just boring, but all of this is part of getting to know yourself in a new way too, and the positive atmosphere of the place is a wonderful, safe environment for that.
And you get to meet very interesting people too. From the conversations I had here I learned that people visit this meditation retreat in northern Thailand for many different reasons. Some people have been hit by an unfortunate twist of destiny and are so emotionally shaken up that they just want to get their feet back on the ground. Some people feel unsatisfied with the life they are living, and they want to find out what they can change. Some people are “retreat nomads”, travelling around the world visiting meditation, yoga and other kinds of spiritual retreats and workshops all the time. Some are on a long trip through Asia and have been on the road for a while, and if you’ve traveled so much you experience so many things, you learn so much, and they stay at the monastery for a couple of days to unwind, to reflect, to let things seep in. And others are just curious what it’s like and want to try this experience.
So whatever your reason is – if you have a couple of days, or weeks to spare, our Mountain Monastery Meditation Trip might be just the right choice for you!